A Brilliant New Novel Interrogates Grad School, America, And The Art Of The Scam


Talking with author Lucy Ives about 'Loudermilk,' the weirdness of 2003, and the problem with Paris Hilton

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: It was 2003 in America, and the revolution was streaming online, comprising sex tapes filmed in phosphorescent-green night vision and starring the kind of people who wore trucker hats and extremely low-slung jeans. It was the year President George W. Bush started a war in Iraq and quickly declared his mission had been accomplished. It was a year of petty victories and history grinding into gear again. It was—it is—the year of Loudermilk.

This cutting, sparkling new novel from Lucy Ives is set in Crete, a fictitious Midwestern town that plays host to The Seminars, only the most esteemed MFA program in the country. Arriving there fresh from graduating SUNY Oswego are two unlikely best friends: the Adonis-like Troy Augustus Loudermilk, and his petite, saturnine friend, Harry Rego. Loudermilk is ostensibly at the program to study poetry, but his brilliant work is all written by Harry. This isn't to say that Loudermilk shouldn't be seen as an artist, more that his art is of a less literary nature: Loudermilk's is the art of the scam.

As Ives tells the story of Loudermilk and Harry, and the assorted people they encounter on campus (look out, especially, for a scammer of a different sort, Anton Beans), it becomes clear that she is telling the story of art, of self-invention, of libertines, of culture, of America. Needless to say, things get dark. And yet, it never gets so dark that you can't see what's right in front of you, in all of its tragic hilarity: the truth of what America is at its very worst and its very best—which, as it turns out, are pretty much the same thing.

Below, I talk with Ives about how she came up with the idea for Loudermilk, why 2003 was such a significant time, and why Paris Hilton is a harbinger of apocalypse.

What was the beginning of this novel?
With this novel and my last novel, it was something that was a little beyond my control, or at least my conscious mind was not saying, Let's write a novel. I became obsessed—in the case of Impossible Views of the World, with the first person narrator; and in the case of Loudermilk, with the relationship Harry and Loudermilk have.

Originally—probably in 2008—I wanted to write a novel about a guy who has a teaching position at a prestigious East Coast university. It doesn't matter which one. He's a terrible person, and he's a lowlife, and he sleeps with his students. He's writing a novel about these two idiots who scam their way into an MFA in the Midwest. I think I wrote about 40,000 words of this framing narrative; as I was writing it, I realized that I only cared about the novel that the character was writing. That's the weird place that this book comes from, from an attempt to make another work of fiction that I wasn't as invested in.

I was interested in the idea of someone who's an artist whose main way of doing their art is not to make art themselves, but to control other people. That's how I understand Loudermilk, as someone who is, in fact, an artist himself, but he's an artist without a medium. Or, his medium is social relationships. He's also, in some ways, a very crude practitioner, and in order to craft the kinds of social dynamics he desires, he needs to deceive other people.

Your last novel was set in a pseudo Metropolitan Museum of Art, and this is set in a pseudo writer's workshop, like the Iowa Writers' Workshop. What do you think it is about not actually dealing with a real place that allows you to get closer to a kind of truth?
It's easy to mistake me for some of the female characters in some of the things that I write, but I'm not really a person who writes autobiographically in fiction. I think that if I were trying to write about real institutions, I would get very bogged down in details. There's something about fiction that allows you to talk about what you know without having to make sure that it can be verified. I think that a claim like that sounds a little politically suspect, but there's a way in which we make up a lot of things when we remember what has happened to us.

I have a tendency to see these artificial places and know who's there when I'm writing fiction. I find that I know very little about real people. I don't know what made my professors or friends in school tick—I speculate, but I really don't know. With fictional characters, I do know. I know everything about their lives, which is really strange. The fiction is interesting to me because it is a space in which you can know what you can't know in so-called real life. With fiction, you can kind of say everything.

This is a very American novel; Loudermilk is essentially American in so many ways. And he enters an MFA program, which is an American invention. And the novel is set in the year 2003, which is a pivotal year in modern American history, the year that Bush said the Iraq War was a "mission accomplished." Loudermilk really had me confronting the idea of what it means to be successful, to get approval, to feel validated, and to produce anything meaningful in America, and how so many of these victories feel so petty and empty. What was it like, when writing, to constantly be interrogating this idea of America?
In a way, this goes back to your first question about where the novel comes from. I'm a nerd. I liked being a student when I was a young person, and I liked to have my stationery and do well on tests, make flash cards, things like that. When I graduated from high school, I had the sense that hard work pays off and the whole American Dream thing, and that if I continued to be a person who was attentive and oriented to details, then things would be great. Also, [I thought] that when I went to college, I would be going into a space where everyone else had the same kinds of values, that we would all be studious and earnest and in awe of the greatness of artists of the past and things like that.

And that's exactly what you found! [laughs]
That's exactly what I found! It was really beautiful and everything has been beautiful since. [laughs] Well, things didn't turn out like that. Without going into too much detail, essentially, the kinds of teaching that you encounter when you get into a university are different. The institution is a source of power. So, the ways that students and teachers behave are sometimes constrained by that, especially if they're trying to get more agency for themselves.

You mentioned the petty victory in Iraq, which is just… everything about that was false. To me, as a person who was just becoming an adult, there was September 11th, which was terrifying and destabilizing and changed my understanding of what history is and where we were in history. I had read Francis Fukuyama's book, I was coming to consciousness during Clinton's presidency, and I had a certain sense of what American imperialism was, and that changed really dramatically. The invasion of Iraq in Spring of 2003, was, I think… there are many disturbing things that have happened in history, but for me, as a young person, this was the most disturbing thing.

I was very disturbed by people's nonchalance about it. I was living in Boston at the time. The bombings in Baghdad would be broadcast on CNN at night, and there was a bank in Harvard Square that had a TV that would just play them over and over. People would stand there and watch them. It was so dystopian; I just couldn't believe that this was happening.

My personal experience of that time was of a time when things had really gone off the rails. There were many bad things that the U.S. government had done, but I just couldn't believe that this was happening. It made me look at what was happening with other institutions differently. I felt like, if the New York Times or the Washington Post or Vanity Fair, if these major publications can become sites for propaganda, what am I seeing in the classroom? What are the values we're working with? How are they advantageous to certain parties and disadvantageous to others?

At the time, I didn't really come to any conclusions, again, this is that problem of real life not lending itself to interpretation. In the context of a novel, I can go back and imagine that there's a way in which a style of poetry that is valued, privileged in a given classroom, tells us something about the way that public address is being imagined in the U.S. during this period of time. This has something to do with people's psychology and their experiences more generally, but also, seeing the institution as a kind of space that doesn't necessarily resist. It's a space that does something else.

This is what I wanted to talk about: How is the institution a kind of microcosm for other things? The seminars aren't a real place; Crete, which is the town in Iowa [where Loudermilk is set], isn't a real place. Even the U.S. that this takes place in isn't the real U.S. It's a version of the U.S. I wanted to try to nest all of these things together, even if it's fake or a guess, to try to show the connection—and how art is a way to see things being connected that so often appear not to be moving in concert with one another in a way that we can interpret.

That's kind of the best description that I can give of my orientation to the real time and real place in the fiction. I keep wanting to make clear that it's a kind of bizarro version, always. I want to keep it from being an attempt to speak about the real place because there's so much information that I'm missing. I only have my own point of view to work from, so I try to go to the strangest parts of that point of view, but it's still limited.

One of the other questions this novel grapples with is how we value art, and the selling of art and the artist, and what is art's role in driving capitalism. One way in which Loudermilk is actually an artist is because of how much he understands how he'll be able to sell himself. This book takes place in 2003, but now, in 2019, the role of the artist in adding value to their art by promoting themselves in a really transactional way, via likes and favorites, makes the whole system feel that much more transparent. What do you think about art in the time of social media? And this might be my way of asking: When are you going to write a novel about social media?
In a way, Loudermilk is a novel about social media. It's just social media before [it existed]. Loudermilk is so elastic, he's prescient, and I do have the sense that he understood what was coming; that he saw the author as an avatar way before the current iteration of that format.

What do I think about now? I feel people are engaged around writing in a way that I can't say is terrible. I am probably a little bit in denial about the quantification of approval. It's a style of metric that keeps changing and keeps evolving, and my own goal, or what I want to do during the time that I draw breath, is sort of different. I don't feel terribly engaged by that. My way of doing things is mainly about developing relationships with people.

I think something that's coincided with the ubiquity of social media is a desire to know what's real or not, and a stronger than ever fascination with the idea of the scam—particularly when people aren't really getting hurt, when it's institutions that are getting hurt. And that's probably because we're starting to understand that institutions are meaningless, but that they're all we have. And yet, people are so terrified of existing outside of the power structure; the people who really feel like they were set up to succeed within it, are the most terrified to exist outside of it. It's why this country is the way it is, and it was like this when Alexis de Tocqueville came here, and it was like this in 2003, and it's a really big mindfuck, and thank you for contributing to that narrative! [laughs]

But also, the scammer plays into the idea of the libertine, a concept you discuss at length in Loudermilk's afterword. In 2003, so much of what Americans were being told at that time was the idea that we were hated for our freedoms and liberalism, but that was so deceptive, and not really an accurate representation of what it was to be an American. In Loudermilk, that can be seen in something as simple as how the women are dressing, including exposing their "whittled hip bones."
When the kitten heel came back in late 2001-2002, I remember thinking, This is bad, this means something bad. At that time, I thought, Okay, here's an image of a woman where the woman is going to have more difficulty moving. And the whittled hip bones, it's like telling women: "You don't have to have a corset, you just can't have any flesh on your body, and also please expose those parts of your body so we know you don't have any." Paris Hilton was a real person, who had a body that somehow conformed to these very strange requirements. I did watch a bunch of The Simple Life, and I thought about that; plus, her and Nicole Richie's relationship is a little bit of a Loudermilk and Harry relationship. We won't read too much into that, even though we know who the brains of that operation is [laughs]! However, I did not watch One Night in Paris. Maybe that'll be for after the novel comes out, I'll treat myself to that, but I don't know if that's really something I want to see.

Well, not unlike the bombing in Baghdad, it was also filmed in night vision. It actually is sort of an interesting, horrific duality, which I'm thinking about right now… because I did watch One Night in Paris.
I think Paris Hilton is an interesting example of the female libertine.

And a Trump supporter, also.
Yeah, it's terrifying. I think there are different ideas about what the rebel is for; what the type of person who engages in this kind of socially unacceptable excess is for; what the function they're serving is. If you think about Paris Hilton in this way—what was she for, what was her role symbolically in culture at the time—she was a spectacle; she was something to look at. She was, in theory, a sexually liberated woman, but she was also awful. She was about the horror of a woman run amok, and there was entertainment value in it, but there was also a justification in it for a kind of reactionary social politics. And, if Loudermilk is a libertine, he is devaluing the idea of freedom a little bit. And I think that's what American libertines do. They don't exist to advance progressive politics, they essentially exist to say, freedom isn't that great, the only thing it's good for is sex or excessive spending or eating. And I don't know if we should be so drawn to those figures, really.

Loudermilk: Or, The Real Poet; Or, The Origin of the World is available for purchase here.

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Illustration by Vivie Behrens

Liberation can come from completion, but then, we are always becoming something new

They say the full moon is about completion. About looking back at the intentions you crowned the new moon with and seeing where those intentions led you. The new moon in Gemini was the pebble that began this cycle, and the full moon in Sagittarius is her echo, the ring getting larger in the water. The new moon in Gemini asked us what we wanted to change about our habits, what we wanted to do with our hands, and our hunger for newness. The new moon in Gemini was interested in the way shifting ideas can give us the freedom to think differently and, in thinking differently, become new people. The full moon in Sagittarius reminds us that we are never not becoming new.

Both Gemini and Sagittarius are mutable signs, they exist in relation to the other and they know how to speak each other's language. But, while Gemini relishes the endless capacity of air (of thought), Sagittarius uses the energy of fire to transform thought into action. Everything Sagittarius touches can't help but change. How can this be completion? The wheel is always spinning, reader. Sagittarius marks the completion of the fire trine. Here, fire is generous and social. It means to gather and teach, to illuminate. Sagittarius lives in the sector of the zodiac chart related to education, philosophy, and the awareness of others—their beliefs and their right to freedom. Because of this, our June Sagittarius full moon is both a completion moon and a moon that reminds us that all endings create space for beginning. The more you leave behind, the more you find. There is no dead end in the universe.

If you are a seeker like me (perhaps you have lots of planets in Sagittarius in your natal chart), you have already come across Jessica Dore's Twitter account. Every day, Dore posts a tarot card and her interpretation of it. It is a gift to many of her readers. Yesterday, she shared The World with us, reminding her readers: "the moments of beauty, belonging & elation that you've experienced up to this point in your life… would still only amount to the tiniest sliver of what this world has to offer in terms of sweetness & pleasure."

I thought about this card and her words all day. The World is, numerically, the last card in the Major Arcana journey—the last card if you don't think about the Fool, who is numbered at 0 and so is the beginning and the end. The World is, therefore, a completion card too, a big echo of a full moon.

This morning, holding the sweet and expansive nature of The World, thinking on Sagittarius people and their love of travel, of reckoning with the edge of an atlas and questioning the map-makers, I pulled the nine of swords from my own Tarot deck. The other side of knowledge is to overwhelm and shut down. Gemini, ruled by Mercury, holds information in her hands. She understands duality in all things. Sagittarius, ruled by Jupiter, yearns for the expansion of mind and the illumination of power. The philosopher and the moralist, a Sagittarius at her best can teach anyone to break open a prison. A Sagittarius at her worst can justify any cage. Don't forget that Jupiter was the king of the gods. His lightning bolt was a weapon. Sometimes, we are too exposed to each other. We imagine we know others through the stories we create about one another. We imagine we know the future because we refuse to be humble about how vulnerable we are to the universe's ever-shifting outcomes. We refuse abundance by convincing ourselves that the cage of identity we build for ourselves is our only possibility.

For the next two days, as the Sun lingers in Gemini and we feel the effects of the moon's fullness in Sagittarius, reflect on the ways you have used knowledge. When has your knowledge been a tool of empowerment for yourself and others? When have you shared the beauty of the world and the joy of radical ideas/ways of living? When have you used knowledge to understand and relieve your own suffering and the suffering of others? And, too, when have you used knowledge as permission for self-delusion? When you have expanded so far into your idea of the world and your own work in it that you forgot how to be accountable to your daily life, your body, your friends, and the people you love? You know when Janis Joplin sings "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose"? That's only one kind of freedom, and it's the kind that Sagittarius thinks it knows very well. Freedom can be about nothing, if nothing is what you want. Then welcome to the monastery, friend. Freedom can also be another word for everything you revel in not knowing. Freedom can be about having everything because you are part of everything, even if you can't see the relation, even if you can't imagine yet how what you want also wants you.

Photo courtesy of HBO.

Kat is making me relive my fat-teen trauma

When people say that HBO's new Zendaya-led teen drama, Euphoria, is triggering, believe them. In the pilot alone we're introduced to Rue (Zendaya) and her drug addiction issues via a graphic depiction of the overdose that sent her to rehab. Then, there's the disturbing rough sex scene featuring Jules (Hunter Schafer), a teenage trans girl who has just moved into town, and a middle-aged man she met on Grindr. Oh, and don't forget the unchecked, toxic masculinity of uber-jock Nate (Jacob Elordi); or the body obsession of his sometimes-girlfriend, Maddy (Alexa Demie). For me though, the ultimate trigger came via Barbie Ferreira's character Kat's experience, as she dealt with and internalized a vicious form of fatphobia.

Kat—almost alone amongst her friends—seems self-assured and dismissive of the idea that any high school drama should be taken too seriously. "You just need to catch a dick and forget about your troubles," Kat tells Maddy, following the latter's recent breakup with Nate. But internally, Kate craves male attention, and resents the fact that she's the only virgin she knows; she hints at this when she tells Maddy that she'd "settle for, like, four Corona Lights and some non-rapey affection," from a guy—any guy.

Kat's bravado leads her into a compromising situation at a high school party; she winds up in a room alone with three boys, where she talks a big game about how she's a "savage" who watches porn and has slept with more people than any of them can count. None of this is true, but Kat is determined to become "a woman of questionable morals."

The scene shows the fine line between being an empowered young woman deciding what to do with her body, on her terms, and being a teenager who thinks she's in control but doesn't fully understand the power dynamics at play. Because, yes, Kat is trying to make an intentional decision about her sexuality and how to use it, but she's doing so with a group of boys who don't value or respect her. This reality is made clear when one of them says to her, "You know what they say, right? Fat girls give the best head."

At those familiar words, I melted into my couch and said a silent prayer of gratitude that I wasn't watching Euphoria in the company of anyone else. Onscreen, Kat, too, shrinks ever so slightly into herself, all while trying to keep a poker face about the whole thing. We don't see exactly what happens in the room, but, later, she seems happy when she shares the news with her friends that she's lost her virginity; even though she then lays down, awake, scrolling through the guy's Instagram, seeming altogether less than happy.

Kat's isn't the most violent or necessarily the saddest story line in the episode. But it showed the ways that issues like consent, toxic masculinity, substance abuse, and body image—all of which are difficult to deal with no matter what your size—are further magnified when experienced through the additional trauma of fatphobia. This is something with which I've personally dealt, and so I felt my past experiences rise up inside me when I watched how Kat couldn't build her own sexual identity without being constantly aware of the ways her body exists outside the parameters of acceptable desirability.

My childhood and adolescence are defined by my experiences as a fat girl; it was a time that often felt like a hazy battlefield, when I could hardly navigate which feelings and thoughts were my own, and which ones were the result of outside forces. My body hardly ever felt like mine, and it took years to develop the autonomy that Kat is grasping at as a teenager. Kat, like so many other fat women, has a total lack of support from her peers when it comes to body image and acceptance, and there's a devastating absence of affirmation about her own worth and the importance of her pleasure. Because of fatphobia, Kat is going to be swimming against a strong, but invisible current as she navigates the already fraught social politics of high school. It's one thing to grasp this truth on an intellectual level, but letting those principles guide your decision-making is truly difficult—even for an adult, let alone for a teenager.

Euphoria airs Sunday nights at 10pm, on HBO.

Courtesy of RLJE Films

White-knuckle your way through wedding season with Maya Erskine and Jack Quaid

Maya Erskine might have first come to our attention in PEN15, the hilarious show she co-created and stars in with Anna Konkle, in which they play 13-year-olds in the year 2000, but in the just-released Plus One, Erskine is all grown up and engaging in a very familiar adult activity: white-knuckling her way through wedding season.

Written and directed by Jeff Chan and Andrew Rhymer—who just so happen to be Erskine's former NYU classmates—Plus One stars Erskine and Jack Quaid as Alice and Ben, two longtime friends who decide to attend a summer of weddings together, and avoid any of the awkwardness that can come with finding the right plus-one. This is especially important for Alice, who is coming off a bad breakup. Of course, as the laws of rom-coms dictate, nothing stays totally platonic. Beyond that, though, Plus One doesn't fall into predictable rom-com tropes, and instead hilariously explores what it's like to spiral into a quarter-life crisis, all while dressed in optional black-tie. Which, we've all been there, right?

"We kind of use the script as its own therapy," Chan told me recently, when I spoke with him, Rhymer, Erskine, and Quaid, about the film. "We were watching friends who have been broken up for a long time get back together at weddings; we were watching people get really sad and get drunk and start crying... they were breeding grounds for lots of emotions coming to the surface."

Courtesy of RLJE Films

And those emotions have the perfect outlet at weddings in the form of toasts and other assorted speeches. Plus One makes good use of that platform by making the wedding speech the hilarious eye of the storm at each of its weddings. These toasts were delivered in the form of scene-stealing cameos—also friends from NYU, of course.

"Almost all of those speeches are based on a real speech Andrew and I have seen," Chan said. "We'd go to a wedding and [we'd think], Yep, that's going in there."

Rhymer adds that they used these speeches as metonyms for the weddings, which made sense time- and budget-wise: "Being an indie film, we obviously produced 12 weddings, but did so kind of cleverly, showing you the rooms or the side rooms where they're rehearsing. We weren't seeing 12 full-blown receptions in all their glory... that would have been, like, millions of dollars."

But perhaps what's most refreshing about Plus One is that it destroys the image of weddings—and, by extension, relationships, and women, in general—as having to be fantasies, as having to be perfect. Because nothing is perfect, and that's what makes life interesting. Erskine, for one, likes being able to show the weirder sides of life, whether as a 13-year-old girl washing a thong with hand soap or a millennial woman who doesn't know what comes next. "There's something really liberating and freeing to show and bear the ugliest parts of yourself—or what society may deem as the ugliest, weirdest parts of yourself—that no one wants to see," she said. "I'm also an over-sharer. So I am drawn to roles that expose more than is typical, and everyone is weird in one way or another."

"I think," Erskine laughed, "it's because I myself am a wacky trash goblin." As it turns out, that's exactly what rom-coms have been missing, until now.

Plus One is in select theaters and available to stream via Amazon now.

PLUS ONE Official Trailer

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Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

That's one way to solve a wardrobe malfunction

Cardi B twerked so hard during a performance that she ripped her outfit and had to rock a bathrobe for the majority of her set.

At Bonnaroo in Manchester, Tennesee, as Cardi got a little too down and into it, a seam split on her bedazzled body-con jumpsuit only moments into her set. Not one to be set back by a wardrobe malfunction, Cardi B rocked a nude strapless bra with a bathrobe on top, making for a Serious Fashion Moment.

"This wasn't just part of the show," Twitter user Lena Blietz pointed out. "No one performs in a nude, strapless bra by choice." I have to agree there. A strapless bra is the bane of my existence on a slow day, I can't imagine what it's like to have to dance in one on stage.

Honestly, watching Cardi perform in this getup made me a stan for life. Despite it not being as flashy as her jumpsuit, Cardi made the bathrobe work, throwing the shoulders down for drama as she paced the stage during each song.

Bonnaroo attendees couldn't help but agree that a bathrobe and nothing else is a mood we all felt in the very, very hot and sweaty crowd. If she had one in my size to share, I would have gladly changed in a heartbeat.

But, despite loving this comfy solution to a big problem, I'd like to take a moment to appreciate the beauty that was the original jumpsuit. RIP.

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

And launched an inclusive summer campaign showcasing 30 different models

Just in time for swim season, sustainable swimwear brand Summersalt launched an inclusive summer campaign, called Every Body is a Beach Body, and significantly expanded its size range.

The brand's sizes now go up to 24 and 2X—quite a jump from its previous availability, which went up to a size 14. Co-founders Reshma Chamberlin and Lori Coulter told NYLON that the size expansion was a must because "we know that there are countless women out there who are missing out on the joy of summer because they don't have the right suit." They noted that they have plans to expand the brand's sizing even more: "We're excited to continue to add more sizes and be even more inclusive."

For the summer campaign, each suit was fitted on 30 professional and non-professional models ranging in body type to ensure it would look great on as many bodies as possible. "We wanted the models for this campaign to be just as diverse and unique as our customers, and we're proud to show models of different sizes, races, gender identities, and physical abilities," said Chamberlin and Coulter. "We want our customers to see themselves in our models, and know that their body is a beach body, exactly as it is right now."

The new collection includes bright new colorways and styles to rock at the beach or the pool. There are bikinis, one-pieces, and even a swim tunic and leggings for modest fashion wearers.

Check out the campaign and some of the new styles, below, and shop the new collection now at Summersalt.

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt

Photo courtesy of Summersalt